Notes From The Field: An Interview With Lt. Jon Bowers, Air Support Unit Commander, Fort Wayne Police Department

We sat down with Lt. Jon Bowers, Commander of the Air Support Unit for Fort Wayne Police Department  to get an inside look at a well developed law enforcement drone program. His lengthy list of accomplishments includes developing the first public event Indiana UAS search warrant and  flying in support of a Secret Service detail for the President. We spoke with Jon to get an inside look at what makes a law enforcement drone program effective, and what makes his successes a reality.

Tell us a little about yourself and Fort Wayne PD’s program

I have supervised narcotics/special units for seven years and a member of similar units for many more. In addition, I’ve been a hostage negotiator for 15 years and have commanded a team for over 6 years. My vision for pursuing drone usage was born out of a collateral support mission of the negotiation team during tactical/negotiations critical incidents. I began exploring the concept several years ago well before the FAA had any practical guidelines in place or before cost-effective technology was in place.

Currently our seven pilots each have a Mavic Pro kit with the FLIR Boson attached separately giving us some thermal capabilities on a first responder basis. Additionally, we are utilizing the Edgybees First Response Pilot app as well as the native DJI Go 4 app for flying missions.

We have one DJI M210 platform with the XT FLIR and Z30 payloads, also utilizing the DJI Pilot app as well as the Edgybees platform.

Lastly, we are utilizing SafetyDrone for pilot/inventory/mission data visualization.

What types of operations are you using drones to support?

We support every tactical/negotiations critical incident, I.e. hostage takings or barricaded suspects, every critical/fatal crash investigation with overhead video or photos (no photogrammetry yet but soon), department public relations events, fire scenes, and fugitive/missing persons that are rarer in an urban area.

What has been the greatest challenge in designing and implementing Fort Wayne PD’s drone program? 

The biggest challenge has been the swift and ever-increasing pace of technological change against the backdrop of yearly public sector budget cycles that struggle to keep up with these changes. This makes planning for what isn’t yet in light of what is currently very challenging in such a fluid economic sector. A close second has been the FAA and the bureaucracy that is the federal government. I’ve come to better appreciate the enormity of the safety challenge that the FAA is tasked with. But against that backdrop, many of the public safety drone uses barely impact routine National Airspace System (NAS) concerns. Over time, the FAA is starting to appreciate public safety needs better.

What excites you most about drones in public safety? 

I’m most excited about nano-UAS technology for drones in public safety. For drones to be truly widely implemented in public safety at the patrol level, much like in the military at the squad level, they must be nano-UAS platforms under the 0.55 lbs threshold for FAA regulation. As the price point comes down for these platforms, they can impact daily patrol and fire activities much more broadly.

What Will it Take To Accelerate Drone Adoption in Public Safety?

 Public safety drone usage will not just be FAA-regulated equipment and pilots. It will be a mix of nano-UAS devices that don’t need FAA regulation and quad/hexcopters like the DJI M210, as well as fixed-wing longer-duration platforms requiring FAA-certifications. Without nano-UAS devices being widely utilized, drones will not really catch on in LE.

What Has Been Fort Wayne PD’s Biggest Success So Far? 

Our biggest success was definitely flying two M210s and one Mavic Pro in support of the Secret Service during a Presidential Rally In November 2018. We crafted the first public event Indiana UAS search warrant as well as obtained the first FAA SGI for Secret Service flight support as far as I’m aware. In doing so, we also brought in a DJI Aeroscope resource for full airspace awareness. We learned a lot about logistics implementation and planning from this mission.

Knowing What You Know Now, Is There Anything You Would Have Done Differently When Launching Your Drone Program? 

We are on the cusp of launching a Visual Observer training program department-wide, allowing more rapid deployment of drones to any scene, in that we only need one RPIC responding instead of two, with trained VOs supplementing the RPIC efforts. I would have implemented this earlier in our program. This would have cultivated more interest and usages of drones in daily street uses, as well as facilitated quicker deployment as only one RPIC is needed at a given scene.

What Does the Future Hold for Fort Wayne PD’s Drone Program? 

I am already planning on obtaining a dedicated UAS team vehicle that allows 2-3 higher-end platforms to be set up and ready to go in that vehicle, in additional to DJI Aeroscope capabilities for counter-drone awareness at scenes. Against that backdrop, I anticipate platforms like the Mavic Enterprise Dual coming down in price and having ever-increasing capabilities at a smaller size. I also anticipate diversifying our high-end platforms into non-internet dependent military type platforms that can fly in almost any weather condition and without fear of firmware or geofencing software issues in critical moments.

If You Had One Piece Of Advise For An Agency Starting A Drone Program, What Would It Be? 

My biggest advice for a new drone program is to decide first what missions for which you envision their usage, and secondly, how to design the logistics of teams and responses that will actually work in your real-world needs. Many agencies buy expensive drones and then try to figure out FAA regulations and logistics. I suggest the opposite. Mission uses and logistics determine everything else. If you can get pilots and drones and teams deployed efficiently, it doesn’t matter what you buy.

 

BRENDAN STEWART

President

As the face of AeroVista Drone Academy, Brendan has almost a decade of unmanned aviation experience and over 2,500 flight hours to show for it. His expertise with drones is equaled only by his passion for building a community of world-class pilots across industries that believe in safety and efficiency above all else. Brendan holds his FAA Sport Pilot Certificate as well as his Remote Pilot Certificate, and his enthusiasm and charisma makes him the perfect Lead Flight Instructor.

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